Colchians, Phrygians, and others: Vitruvius theorizes development from primitives to civilized peoples (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Colchians, Phrygians, and others: Vitruvius theorizes development from primitives to civilized peoples (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024,

Ancient author: Vitruvius (first century BCE), On Architecture 2.1.1-9 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: In this discussion of the history of architecture (dedicated to emperor Augustus), Vitruvius reveals some assumptions among certain Roman and Greek elites regarding peoples labelled “barbarians”: namely, that they reflect the primitive lifestyles of earliest humans. This attests to a viewpoint that is also evident in Thucydides in the fifth century BCE (link) and in Diodoros in the first (link) regarding a Greek theory of the gradual development of humanity from a savage lifestyle to a civilized one, with Greeks (or in this case Romans are likely substituted) being the culmination of human society. This story is primarily one focussed on the supposed civilized peoples of the present, namely Greeks or Romans, then. However, other peoples can be brought in to illustrate what “we” (Greeks or Romans) used to be like, as in Thucydides as well. In Vitruvius’ case, he outlines the primitive modes of building dwellings among peoples including Phrygians and Colchians east of the Black Sea (but Mossynoikians on the southern coast, known for their towers, may be in mind – link). It is worth remembering that Vitruvius, in the dedication of the work, praises Augustus for subjugating “all peoples” and also reveals that Vitruvius was responsible for maintenance of military equipment under Augustus’ adopted father, Julius Caesar.


[Development from the primitive lifestyle of early humans]

[Discovery of fire and communication]

(1) In the old days, men were born like the wild beasts, in woods, caves, and groves, and lived on savage food. As time went on, the thickly crowded trees in a certain place, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing their branches against one another, caught fire. So the inhabitants of the place ran away, being terrified by the furious flame. After it subsided, they drew near and, observing that they were very comfortable standing before the warm fire, they put on logs. While they were keeping it going like this, they brought up other people to it, showing them by signs how much comfort they got from it. In that gathering of men, at a time when utterance of sound was purely individual, from daily habits they fixed upon articulate words just as these had happened to come. Then, from indicating by name things in common use, the result was that in this chance way they began to talk, and in this way started conversation with one another.

[Invention of dwellings]

(2) So it was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of men, to the deliberative assembly, and to social interaction. As they kept coming together in greater numbers into one place, finding themselves naturally gifted beyond the other animals in not being obliged to walk with faces to the ground, but upright and gazing upon the splendour of the starry firmament, and also in being able easily to do whatever they chose with their hands and fingers, they began in that first assembly to construct shelters. Some made them of green boughs, others dug caves on mountain sides, and some, in imitation of the nests of swallows and the way they built, made places of refuge out of mud and twigs. Next, by observing the shelters of others and adding new details to their own creations, they constructed better and better kinds of huts as time went on.

(3) Since they were of an imitative and teachable nature, they would daily point out to each other the results of their building, boasting about the novelties in it. As a result, with their natural gifts sharpened by emulation, their standards improved daily. At first they set up forked stakes connected by twigs and covered these walls with mud. Others made walls of lumps of dried mud, covering them with reeds and leaves to keep out the rain and the heat. Finding that such roofs could not stand the rain during the storms of winter, they built them with peaks daubed with mud, the roofs sloping and projecting so as to carry off the rain water.

[Primitive foreign peoples in the present as an illustration of primitive lifestyles]

(4) That houses originated as I have written above, we can see for ourselves from the buildings that are to this day constructed of similar materials by foreign peoples (nationes). For instance, in Gaul, Spain, Lusitania [Portugal], and Aquitaine, houses are roofed with oak shingles or thatched.


Among the Colchians in Pontos [i.e. east of the Black Sea], where there are plenty of forests, they lay down entire trees flat on the ground to the right and the left, leaving between them a space to suit the length of the trees. Then they place above these another pair of trees, resting on the ends of the former and at right angles with them. These four trees enclose the space for the dwelling. Then upon these they place sticks of timber, one after the other on the four sides, crossing each other at the angles. So, proceeding with their walls of trees laid perpendicularly above the lowest ones, they build up high towers. The interstices, which are left on account of the thickness of the building material, are filled up with chips and mud. As for the roofs, by cutting away the ends of the crossbeams and making them converge gradually as they lay them across, they bring them up to the top from the four sides in the shape of a pyramid. They cover it with leaves and mud, and thus construct the roofs of their turretted towers in a barbarian style.

[Phrygians, with comparisons]

(5) On the other hand, the Phrygians, who live in an open country, have no forests and consequently lack timber. They therefore select a natural hill, run a trench through the middle of it, dig passages, and extend the interior space as widely as the site admits. Over it they build a pyramidal roof of logs fastened together, and this they cover with reeds and brushwood, heaping up very high mounds of earth above their dwellings. So their style of houses makes their winters very warm and their summers very cool. Some construct hovels with roofs of rushes from the swamps. Furthermore, among other peoples in some places there are huts of the same or a similar method of construction. Likewise at Massallia [Marseilles, France] we can see roofs without tiles, made of earth mixed with straw. In Athens on the Areopagus there is to this day a relic of the old days with a mud roof. The hut of Romulus on the Capitol is a significant reminder of the fashions of old times, and likewise the thatched roofs of temples on the Citadel.

[Further developments from barbarian to civilized life]

(6) From such specimens we can draw our inferences with regard to the devices used in the buildings of the old days, and conclude that they were similar. Furthermore, as men made progress by becoming daily more expert in building, and as their ingenuity was increased by their dexterity so that from habit they attained to considerable skill, their intelligence was enlarged by their industry until the more proficient adopted the craft of carpenters. From these early beginnings, and from the fact that nature had not only endowed humankind with senses like the rest of the animals, but had also equipped their minds with the powers of thought and understanding, thus putting all other animals under their sway, they next gradually advanced from the construction of buildings to the other skills and bodies of knowledge. And so they passed from a savage (fera) and rustic mode of life to civilization and refinement.

[Building proper houses]

(7) Then, taking courage and looking forward from the standpoint of higher ideas resulting from the multiplication of skills, they gave up huts and began to build houses with foundations, having brick or stone walls and having roofs of timber and tiles. Next, observation and application led them from fluctuating and indefinite conceptions to definite rules of symmetry. Perceiving that nature had been lavish in granting timber and bountiful in stores of building material, they treated this like careful nurses. Developing the refinements of life in this way, they embellished them with luxuries.

[Justification for the placement of this discussion of origins of building]

Therefore I will now treat, to the best of my ability, of the materials which are suitable to be used in buildings, showing their qualities and their excellencies. (8) Some persons, however, may find fault with the organization of this book, thinking that it should have been placed first. I will therefore explain the matter, in case it is thought that I have made a mistake. Being engaged in writing a complete treatise on architecture, I decided to present in the first book the branches of learning and studies of which it consists, to define its departments, and to show of what it is composed. Hence I have there declared what the qualities of an architect should be. In the first book, therefore, I have spoken of the function of the skill, but in this book I will discuss the use of the building materials which nature provides. For this book does not show what architecture is composed of, but treats the origin of the building skill, how it was fostered, and how it made progress, step by step, until it reached its present perfection. (9) This book is, therefore, in its proper order and place. . . [omitted remainder].


Source of translation: Frank Granger, Vitruvius: On Architecture, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1931), public domain (Granger passed away in 1936), adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *